This 19‑year‑old weightlifting champion is into some serious success.
By Allison Payne
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
When Cheryl Haworth walked into the Anderson/Cohen Weightlifting Center in Savannah, Georgia, she was just planning to build a little upper arm strength for softball. Then she hoisted a 110-pound bar over her head effortlessly – and caught the attention of the gym's coaches, who knew they were looking at a natural-born weightlifter. That was seven years ago.
Since that day, Cheryl's taken the weightlifting world by storm. She's lifted a whopping 285 pounds in the snatch (lifting the weight overhead in one motion) and 352 pounds in the clean and jerk (lifting the weight to your chest, then thrusting it overhead), putting her in serious contention for a world record. She's placed first at the American Open, National and Junior World Championships, and the Pan American Games. She even captured a bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, becoming (at age 17) the youngest American ever to win a medal in Olympic weightlifting.
Guideposts for Teens caught up with Cheryl at her gym in Savannah, just a few days before she headed to the junior World Championships in the Czech Republic.
GP4T: You compete in the super-heavyweight class (165.25 pounds and over). Have you always been bigger than other kids your age?
Cheryl: I started to get big when I was about 8 years old. Till then, I was thin and smaller than other children. But I was always stronger than everybody else. Nobody in my immediate family is overweight, so I don't see where I get it from.
GP4T: Do any of your family members also lift?
Cheryl: My younger sister, Katie, does. She's in the weight class lighter than mine. She's taking time off right now, but she's junior National champion. She likes it, but she's not as serious as I am about weightlifting.
GP4T: What would you say makes a good weightlifter?
Cheryl: You have to be more of an athlete than just "strong." Weightlifting's mostly about speed and technique. The faster you can move the weight, the faster you can get it over your head. The closer you can keep it to your body, the better your chances of making the lift successfully. If you try to do it all slow and controlled, it won't work. You also have to maintain balance ‑ that's so important. Most of all, though, weightlifting's a mental sport. You have to know you can do it. You can tell when people don't think they can make a lift ‑ because they won't! They'll bring the weight halfway up and they'll drop it.
GP4T: How do you focus before a competition?
Cheryl: I try to relax as much as possible. If I concentrate too much on what I'm doing, I'll get nervous and go nuts. I keep myself calm and focused. I think about what I want to lift, think about how I feel, and talk to my coach. Prayer helps, too. It makes me feel better.
GP4T: What was it like to medal at the Olympics?
Cheryl: I had such high expectations going in. You work so hard to get there, and you don't want to come away with nothing. A lot of people thought I was going to win the gold. But I wasn't disappointed that I got the bronze medal. The weight I lifted at the Olympics was the most my body would allow me to do at that time. I always give 100 percent. As long as I know afterwards that I've done my best, it's really easy to live with not placing as high as I'd like.
GP4T: Some people have called the Sydney Olympics the "Shame Games" because of how many athletes tested positive for drugs. How often do you take drug tests?
Cheryl: The U.S. definitely has the highest drug-testing standards. We get tested constantly ‑ at least once a month. The lady from the U.S. Olympic Committee could come in right now and have me submit a drug test! "No advance notice" is what it's called. I have to fill out forms saying where I'm going to be at all times. If they can't find you and you don't submit a drug test, then you get suspended. And sometimes I'll get tested before and after a competition. It's really, really strict‑ but unfortunately it's not like that in a lot of countries.
GP4T: Weightlifters often don't "peak" until age 30. What will you be doing when you're 30?
Cheryl: I don't know if I'm gonna be lifting when I'm 30 ‑ that's such a long way away. I eventually want to find a career, get married. But as long as I keep improving, and as long as I continue to enjoy the sport, I'll stick with it.
GP4T: Have you had any injuries?
Cheryl: I have a bulging disk in my lower back, but it doesn't give me any problems. I had to start wearing belts, and I do more sit-ups to keep the area stabilized. I also have tendonitis— inflammation of the tendons ‑ in my knees and wrists from overuse. Other than that, nothing to speak of. I mean, I've pulled muscles, but you can do that walking down the street!
GP4T: Your nickname around the gym is "Fun?” How did you get it?
Cheryl: I used to train wearing a T-shirt that said "Fun" on it. Our team went to a competition, and this guy started referring to me as "Fun" . . . and it just stuck. I have an easygoing sense of humor. I'll laugh at pretty much anything! My favorite show is The Simpsons. As a joke, one time a couple of guys here at the gym and I picked up this girl's car and moved it way across a field. It was so funny.
GP4T: Is body image something you struggle with?
Cheryl: Not really. I'm happy the way I am. There's always room for improvement, but you can't be obsessed with it or you'll be miserable!
GP4T: Do you follow a special diet?
Cheryl: I'm trying to get in better shape, so I'm watching my diet right now. Today I had to fight the urge to go to Taco Bell. I've been making small changes ‑ instead of eating out, I go home. Instead of drinking Coke, I drink water. And I stay active. When I'm eating healthy and drinking water like I am now, my muscles are more hydrated, which makes working out a lot easier. And I don't get tired as quickly. If you're eating the right foods, even if you're not losing weight, you'll still feel better.
GP4T: What's it like shopping for clothes?
Cheryl: I don't really shop for clothes much because it's hard. I'm a comfort person. If it's not comfortable, I'm not wearing it. I wear T-shirts and shorts pretty much every day because: a) It's not important. I don't really care how I look; and b) Clothes are expensive. Once in a while, I'll get dressed up. But I'm not gonna dress up in something for school and then have to come to the gym and change clothes. That's why I wear my hair up a lot. It just gets sweaty at some point, anyway. I'm a very low-maintenance person.
GP4T: How do you keep fame from going to your head?
Cheryl: As long as you think you're a normal person, you'll remain a normal person. When your mom makes you wash the car and clean the kitchen and vacuum the house, you don't think that you're special or better than anybody else because you're not. There's nothing spectacular about the things I do every day. I have the most boring days. Wake up. Go to my college classes. Work out. Go home. Check my e‑mail. Try to do some homework. Then fall asleep and do it all over again ‑ unless I have a competition or an interview!
GP4T: Do you see yourself as a role model?
Cheryl: I hope I am. If people are inspired by what I do, I'm glad. Because people sometimes recognize me, I try to set a good example. I try a little harder to be a good person.
GP4T: How do people ‑ especially guys ‑ react when they find out you're a weightlifter?
Cheryl: They think it's neat. They might be shocked initially, and be Iike, "Wow, really?" Once they find out, they enjoy it as much as anybody else, I suppose.
GP4T: Do you have a boyfriend?
Cheryl: Not right now. I'm too busy for that! I like being friends with people instead of having to worry about a bunch of boy/girl stuff.
GP4T: You're an art student. What's your artistic style like?
Cheryl: I'm a freshman at Savannah College of Art and Design. My major's going to be historic preservation, and I'm going to minor in illustration, because I'm much better at drawing than anything else. I like graphite a lot. I also do charcoal and ink. Right now I'm working in ink and watercolor ‑ and I've done projects using colored pencils and oil wash. I love it all!
GP4T: Which artist do you admire most?
Cheryl: Right now it's Michelangelo because I'm trying to do a sculpture from a cement block and it's impossible. I have a newfound respect for him. To carve a solid block of marble and have it look like David ... it's amazing.
GP4T: What's your ultimate goal in life right now?
Cheryl: I'd like to get a gold medal in the Olympics. And it would be awesome to win World Champion, so I can have that "strongest woman in the world" title. That's what every athlete works for ‑ to become the best in the world. I'm getting there. It's taking a while, but you have to be patient.
233X-613-021 TREE‑MEND0US: This photo of Cheryl was featured in the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, "Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?"
GM4T: Do you have any advice for other teens?
Cheryl: Instead of doing what everybody else is doing, find something you're really good at and you like doing. Work hard at it. And remember that what you're going to be good at, your "calling:' sometimes isn't as apparent as you'd like it to be. Like weightlifting ‑ it isn't an "obvious" sport. I never would have known about it if I hadn't just stumbled into this gym one day!